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News & Features » July 2015 » “A Park in California” by Jane Hammons

“A Park in California” by Jane Hammons

Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.

This week, Jane Hammons takes us to Berkeley, California, where a recent university graduate is haunted by a poem.

Jane HammonsA Park in California
by Jane Hammons
Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California

He walked down Telegraph Avenue toward campus, stepping around street kids, doped up and dirty. Filthy cardboard sign propped against an open guitar case—no guitar in sight—Give me $1 I need weed. Too lazy to speak. Their nasty drooling dogs on chain-link leashes, too stupid to bark.

His first year at Berkeley, he and his bros had dressed as those kids for Halloween and made a trick-or-treat place for themselves on the sidewalk. The black slash grins of plastic pumpkins said: Gimme candy I need candy. They’d had a good time before the fight broke out. Berkeley cops took them all down to the station, releasing them when they showed Cal ID.

He tossed a penny at a dreadlocked girl with several rings in her nose. She hissed at him and threw it back.

“Leave those people alone, Daniel,” his mother admonished him, and Daniel counted off the seconds until his father began his dissertation on how Berkeley had changed, “When I went to school here, panhandlers sang or juggled, they didn’t just take”—which triggered Grandpa’s beatnik poetry recitation. Alan Ginsberg’s poems about the only thing he remembered. “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” Crazy old coot, but at least he’s entertaining, thought Daniel. Before his mother could say it, Daniel supplied the next line: “Ginsberg wrote ‘A Supermarket in California’ about the old co-op market.” Like he cared.

Third generation Cal Bear, Daniel looked forward to graduation, if not the hours until then, stalled in the traffic of his family’s memory lane. After the ceremony, he’d spend the night with his bros. They’d leave their mark on Berkeley.

The bells in the Campanile’s tower signaled the noon hour and ten minutes until the start of his last final exam. He identified the song and flashed a beautiful smile. “I know them all by heart.” To please her—his mother also a Cal alum—and to fulfill his arts req he’d taken a class about Berkeley’s Carillon. His mother smiled but wondered how her son, with a head so full of knowledge—her genetic package and that of her husband, a man so kind he was downright goofy—turned out so cruel. His father didn’t see it. She suspected Daniel didn’t know that she did, but his cold heart had wounded her own warm one on more than one occasion. She worried about her son without the structure school offered and no plans after graduation. Scott Joplin’s “Solace” pealed beautifully from the Campanile’s bell tower but provided no balm for concerns that plagued her.

Daniel took off in the direction of the Haas School of Business, leaving his parents and grandfather to tour the campus for the gazillionth time, happy to miss the boring stories of their youth.

*

Ceremony over, dinner eaten, toasts made, graduation obligations done, Daniel grabbed a baseball bat from his closet and headed toward People’s Park, only a block from where his family slept at the Hotel Durant. He and his bros planned to put the hurt on some homeless people snoozing in their filthy rags and rotting sleeping bags. Late-night sneak attack—they weren’t going to know what hit ’em.

When he got near the park, he heard someone call out, “Oh man, this old geezer is trippin’.” He saw the figure of a naked man dancing in the middle of the park illuminated by the moonlight.

His friends began to taunt the dancer. He ran to get in on the action, but felt a cold metal chain around his neck before he could join them. A tall boy yanked him back into the dark shadows of the trees. He saw the pierced girl from Telegraph next to him. The chain tightened. As he began to choke, Daniel heard the familiar lines.

Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!

“No,” he screamed at the ratty kid who grabbed his bat and charged toward his grandfather.

He heard the crack of the bat against his grandfather’s head and watched the old shadow crumple to the ground. The sounds of fighting—the street kids, his friends, the homeless—seemed far away. Poor Mom and Dad, they’ll be a couple of lonely Bears now, thought Daniel, losing consciousness. The closing lines of his grandfather’s beloved poem drifted toward him. Something about America. Charon. The river Lethe. He knew the words. The poem. But he no longer remembered what any of it meant.

***

JANE HAMMONS teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing appears in several anthologies, including Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton) and The Maternal is Political (Seal Press). A recipient of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society, she has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of magazines and journals: Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Crimespree Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Word Riot.

***

Would you like to submit a story to the Mondays Are Murder series? Here are the guidelines:

—Your story should be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in the neighborhood you chose.
—Include the neighborhood, city, state, and country next to your byline.
—Your story should be Noir. What is Noir? We’ll know it when we see it.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission [email protected] paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Jul 20, 2015

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